We’re on vacation sitting at a busy lunch counter for a treat of pie à la mode for us and an Italian Ice for C.S. We’ve also been looking at bills from different countries pasted on the wall opposite us and are making a game out of it to keep C.S. engaged through the long wait. Interspersed among the bills are some family pictures and it’s these that have caught my attention; a beautiful daughter at graduation, a row of girls in matching dresses, a happy family assembled. Among the many obvious stories these pictures tell—of proud parents, happy reunions and accomplishments—one of them is that this family is interracial. He’s white. She’s black. The couple in the pictures is in the kitchen. They’re much older now than their photos, or at least he is. The color has drained from his skin and hair and his back has slumped apparently weary from his many years. She seems so different. She is tall, strong looking, her skin and hair is so dark. She also seems to be one of those women who do not age, at least not on the surface.
The pies arrive, but unfortunately, they’ve brought our order and not his. The Italian Ice is prepackaged and will be here quickly enough — which is also why I thought it would come out first, but it hasn’t. I could have prevented this, I think as C.S. wails and then drapes himself over the curved glass of their ice cream display. I try to get his attention, to calm him, but I am three stools away and trying instinctively not to make any more waves than we already have because a few people are staring. If they knew how hard he’d been working all this time, how successful he had been at waiting patiently, until now. But they don’t of course. All anyone can know is that there’s a little boy in a small space causing a big scene right in front of the cash register.
“Behave yourself young man. Sit properly in your seat,” commands the black woman in the prep area.
It’s her restaurant. It’s her customers. I recognize her every right to say this. I don’t mind it at all really, because although stern, her voice has a motherly warmth and command to it. But I am now nervous and en garde for my son. I’ve been trying to get his attention, but it is her C.S. responds to. He sits back in his seat when he wasn’t even acknowledging me.
While we are eating our warm pie and cold treats, she comes over to speak to C.S.— a friendly follow through now that he is behaving for her. And then he tells her, “I think brown skin is beautiful.”
The warmth drains from her face and we freeze, her and me, like two deer that have caught the faint scent of an unseen but familiar predator.
But C.S. pushes on, oblivious to such cues as a strong and sudden quiet. “I like blond hair too.”
She raises her eyebrow at this. She does not have blond hair. And she has little chance to comment as C.S. is babbling on with his enthusiastic attempt to charm her. At least he seems to have picked up on the eyebrow.
“Your hair is pretty too. But blond hair is my favorite. Those are my favorites; brown skin, blond hair and eyes that have a shimmer in them.”
She relaxes. She finds her voice again. She asks him what color his skin is. The situation becomes harmless and so I relax too. Because, although her voice hasn’t regained its earlier congenial warmth and confident command, I think she now realizes that while this freckled face white child is strange, his intention is kind and he is sincere.
And what can you say really when a little white boy tells an older black woman that he thinks the color of her skin is beautiful?
My silver lining: C.S. is quirky. He misses so much. He never realized there was something wrong about commenting on a the color of someone's skin. But he is kind and sincere. And if he can gain social skills but also retain some of this wonderful openness, it could be that my oddly charming son will change this world, for the better.